Why is mass incarceration in the U.S. a big problem? Who’s the most susceptible to being incarcerated in America?
In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson finds that the U.S. justice system consistently doles out extreme punishments to the most vulnerable Americans. He discusses four demographics that are susceptible to unjust punishments: children, the intellectually disabled and mentally ill, veterans, and women.
Find out why these groups of people are more likely to be victims of the corrupt justice system.
Extreme Punishments of Children
To begin, Stevenson argues that children make up a big chunk of mass incarceration in the U.S. The incarceration of children became the norm in the ‘90s. According to Stevenson, faulty predictions by criminologists led to excessive punishments of children, especially children of color.
Stevenson notes that in the late ‘80s, criminologists predicted that “super predators”—violent children without remorse—would inundate the juvenile justice system. He argues that widespread panic consequently gripped the justice system, leading to increased prosecution of children as adults and harsh punishments.
According to Stevenson, the fear of super predators led to a troubling trend: Judges reactively condemn children to die in prison, robbing them of the potential for rehabilitation.
Trina Garnett illustrates this trend. The daughter of an abusive, alcoholic father, Garnett fled her home at a young age, sometimes staying with family and sometimes homeless. At age 14, as Stevenson recounts, Garnett climbed through the window into the house of some nearby boys, carrying a match to light her way. After accidentally dropping the match, however, she lit the house aflame, ultimately asphyxiating the two boys.
Despite her lack of intent, Garnett was tried as an adult and convicted of 2nd-degree murder. Moreover, due to uncompromising laws that don’t consider intent, the judge sentenced Garnett to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
Extreme Punishments of the Intellectually Disabled and Mentally Ill
Stevenson also discusses how the justice system treats individuals with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. He argues that the evidence is clear: The U.S. Justice System disproportionately imprisons the intellectually disabled and mentally ill, even though prisons exacerbate mental illness.
At the 2014 publication of Just Mercy, Stevenson notes that more than 50% of U.S. prison inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness—five times the general population’s rate. Further, because guards aren’t trained to address mental illness, they mistreat prisoners with mental illnesses. For example, rather than receiving needed care, prisoners are regularly placed in solitary confinement, where their conditions worsen.
(Shortform note: Although mental illness is rampant in prison, prisoners often fail to receive adequate treatment. Indeed, a 2017 study found that only 36% of prisoners suffering from mental illness actively received treatment. Moreover, the prevalence of co-pays for medical care exacerbates this issue; all federal prisons, and 40 states, charge prisoners a co-pay for initiating medical treatment, which disincentivizes the mentally ill from seeking help.)
To illustrate, Stevenson discusses Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life without parole for a crime he didn’t commit as an intellectually disabled 13 year-old. At 13, Sullivan burglarized Lena Bruner’s empty house with two older boys in 1989. According to Stevenson, another man entered the house later that day when Bruner was home, violently raping her. She could only describe her rapist as African-American, and the older boys were quickly apprehended by police.
To earn leniency with the judge, the older boys claimed that Sullivan—who freely turned himself in—had raped Bruner. Though he confessed to the burglary, Sullivan denied committing sexual battery, and Bruner couldn’t positively identify him. Moreover, though the police collected DNA evidence of the rape, they destroyed it before trial, making it impossible to exculpate Sullivan.
(Shortform note: Because Bruner didn’t clearly see her assailant’s face, her testimony focused on Sullivan’s voice in particular. After listening to Sullivan speak, Bruner ultimately testified that “It’s hard, but it does sound similar.” Thus, a key piece of evidence driving Sullivan’s conviction was the assertion that his voice was merely “similar” to that of Bruner’s assailant.)
Despite lacking credible evidence, prosecutors tried Sullivan as an adult and he was sentenced to life without parole. In prison, he was raped repeatedly by older inmates and became suicidal. He would later develop multiple sclerosis, possibly as a result of severe trauma, and require a wheelchair. Consequently, Stevenson observes that Sullivan’s condition grew drastically worse through his experience in prison.
(Shortform note: It’s possible that the repeated sexual abuse Sullivan suffered in prison also played a part in his developing multiple sclerosis, as one 2022 study found that childhood abuse is associated with an increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis. In particular, researchers found the strongest link between sexual abuse suffered as a child and multiple sclerosis onset later in life.)
Extreme Punishments of Veterans
In a similar vein, Stevenson argues that the U.S.. Justice System disproportionately imprisons traumatized veterans, who can’t smoothly return to society after their service has scarred them.
To demonstrate the system’s failure toward veterans, Stevenson recounts the story of Herbert Richardson, a traumatized Vietnam War veteran. Suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Richardson began dating a nurse in Alabama and grew obsessed with her. However, she recognized his obsession and tried to sever the relationship.
Richardson’s reasoning, Stevenson writes, became faulty and deluded. Consequently, he built a small bomb to detonate on his ex-girlfriend’s porch, planning to win her affection by rescuing her after the explosion. However, his ex-girlfriend’s niece found the bomb first and decided to shake it; she was killed instantly by the explosion.
At trial, the prosecution argued that Richardson was evil, rather than recognizing that trauma had made him mentally unstable. Further, Stevenson mentions that the prosecution claimed Richardson had intended to kill, making the crime punishable with the death penalty.
Meanwhile, because Alabama law only paid public defenders $1,000 for preparation time, Richardson’s counsel—who was later disbarred—didn’t research any mitigating factors, like his military tenure and lasting trauma. So, after a one-day trial, the judge sentenced Richardson to death. Despite Stevenson’s best efforts to get a stay of execution, the sentence was carried out: Richardson was executed via electric chair in August of 1989. As he walked to his death, the prison played the hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” per his final request.
Extreme Punishments of Women
Finally, Stevenson examines how women fare in the justice system, and finds a similar result: Women—especially impoverished ones—are frequently subject to cruel and unjust punishments.
First, Stevenson notes that the rate of incarcerated women is growing quicker than that of incarcerated men. Between 1980 and 2010, he observes that the amount of women in prison increased 646%—about 1.5 times the rate of increase for men. This increased incarceration, Stevenson argues, has systemic effects: Over 75% of women in prison have young children, who become more likely to end up in prison without a maternal caregiver.
(Shortform note: According to experts, it’s unclear why the rate of incarcerated women has increased quicker than that of incarcerated men. However, data suggests that the so-called “War on Drugs” is responsible for many of these incarcerations—in 2019, 26% of women in state prisons were convicted of drug crimes, compared to 13% of men.)
To illustrate this trend, Stevenson discusses the case of Marsha Colbey, a poor mother of six from rural Alabama. In the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which destroyed Colbey’s home, she became pregnant at age 43 but couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Consequently, Stevenson observes she wasn’t aware of a placental abruption cutting off oxygen to her unborn child. Months later, Colbey delivered a stillborn son in her bathtub, and her attempts to revive him failed. However, due to a nosy neighbor, police were notified that Colbey was no longer pregnant and suspected that she had murdered her newborn child.
(Shortform note: In addition to the pain of being falsely accused of murdering her child, Colbey was likely still processing the trauma of her stillbirth when police arrested her. After all, experts note that stillbirth is a deeply traumatizing experience for many women, on par with that of combat veterans.)
After exhuming the infant’s body, state forensic pathologist Kathleen Enstice—who had a track record of mistakenly declaring deaths to be homicides—asserted that the baby was born alive and subsequently drowned. Despite several medical experts discrediting Enstice’s assessment at trial, Colbey was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole. This conviction, Stevenson notes, won the praise of local media, which often sensationalized high-profile cases of mothers allegedly killing their children.
Stevenson eventually won Colbey a new trial by appealing to the Alabama Supreme Court, and various expert pathologists testified that Enstice’s original assessment was incorrect. In turn, authorities decided not to re-prosecute. Still, the damage was done: Colbey had spent 10 years in prison because she couldn’t afford medical care during her pregnancy.
(Shortform note: Researchers find that exonerees face a host of problems upon their release. For example, their time in prison often deprives them of the social skills needed to re-enter society, leaves them financially destitute, and results in PTSD that requires further treatment upon release.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Just Mercy summary:
- An examination of the justice system's failures toward marginalized populations
- Examples of criminal cases from history that illistrate the failures
- Possible solutions for repairing the justice system in America